COVID Impact Journal

59 thoughts
last posted May 7, 2021, 4:33 p.m.
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Legit major traffic slowdown on the way home from work last night, the first time I can remember there being stop-and-go traffic on Highway 100 (that wasn’t due to an accident) since before the pandemic.

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Jess was vaccinated a month ago (J&J). I received my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine a week ago.

My sister in law was also vaccinated with J&J while still pregnant with her son. Baby was born a few weeks later, all fine and healthy.

About 60% of Minnesotans aged 16+ have received at least one dose. But the daily rate of people getting started on the vaccine is dropping quickly. If our current 7-day average rate held firm, we would hit 75% of adults at the end of June. But the rate isn’t holding firm; it’s falling so quickly that we may not ever reach even 65%.

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USA Today reports that adoption rate of COVID exposure notification apps is so low that they have been effectively useless.

On April 24 (above) I predicted these apps would be useless, and it looks like I was right. I was also right that the app would be well-done on a technical level but fail on the reporting side. But I was wrong that people would spam the system with false reports; instead of too many, the problem is that there were too few.

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Debate/argument fires among family members blazing back over the past week, prompted by my brother and SIL saying they want people to get vaccinated before visiting their baby, due in April.

The discussion is in a weird place of being both necessary and pointless. Maybe in part because we’re debating two things at the same time without distinction: the safety of the vaccine and the reasonableness of requiring it for baby visits. But also because this is, in my view, actually a religious difference between us. It goes to the heart of how we understand the world and how it works, and the way we gather information about it. There’s a fundamental rift there that is not bridgeable by debate.

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By 2019 estimates, Minnesota has roughly 4,337,000 people age 18 and up. 75% of that is 3,252,750.

As of today, 599,218 people in the state have been given at least one vaccine dose. So Minnesota is 18% of the way towards getting 75% of its adult populated started on the vaccine.

Using last week’s rate of 200,000 doses administered means it would take 13–14 weeks to get 75% of adult Minnesotans started on the vaccine.

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This week my aunt, who was in the middle of a cancer battle, died of COVID complications.

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Two weeks ago three co-workers tested positive and the office was shut down. Some people still are still working remotely. Jess and I both took tests after the five-day mark and results came back negative.

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New Zealand, meanwhile, has been back to normal for several months now: restaurants, sporting events, no masking, everything that defined pre-COVID life except for unrestricted incoming travel from other countries.

From an article published last December:

In New Zealand, people are going to malls without masks and sharing popcorn with friends in movie theaters. In Australia, they are watching live theater and sports and seeing bands perform at packed concerts. Thai people in Bangkok are drinking inside busy bars and dancing, while in Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, more than 130,000 gathered for one of the only Pride parades to take place in person this year.

“Pride was huge. There was a ton of people out,” said Perry Truong, a 25-year-old English tutor who moved last year from the US, where there are currently almost 200,000 new COVID-19 cases each day, to Taiwan, where there hasn’t been a new locally transmitted case of the coronavirus in more than 200 days. “It’s really not in my mind at all,” Truong said. “I don’t feel anxious about catching the virus. I don’t feel scared about not wearing a mask to public places. For lack of a better word, it’s really normal.”

“It feels weird,” he added, “because I feel like when people talk about this in 10 years, they’ll be like, ‘Remember the pandemic?’ and I’ll be like, ‘There was a pandemic?’”

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Other COVID-related developments on all fronts:

  • So far 415,000 Americans have died of COVID-19.
  • As of today it looks like we might be just over the hump of the most recent surge in cases/deaths. Locally, hospitalizations have come down.
  • Jess and I haven’t had a date night since November.
  • People at my workplace have continued to get better about wearing masks.
  • I notice there has been hardly any news about treatments and therapeutics for the virus (as opposed to vaccines). Oklahoma is trying to return a $2m stockpile of hydroxychloroquine that turned out to be worthless for COVID treatment.
  • I’m still taking a voluntary saliva test every 1–2 weeks.
  • In MN schools are back open for the youngest students. My daughter is now back in first grade, and it’s been a rough adjustment, like a typical first week of school.
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Another relief/stimulus bill was finally signed at the end of 2020. The first week of January I received a direct deposit from the IRS $600 for each person in our house, $2,400 total. There may be a third such bill coming some time in the next couple of months.

UChicago/Notre Dame economists found that the US’s weird experiment with a massive relief bill that was then allowed to expire during the pandemic had some interesting effects. Poverty decreased by 1.5% in the first phase of the pandemic, then increased by 2.4% from June to December 2020.

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It’s been about six weeks since the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were approved in the US. There was talk in December of the US having 30% of the population vaccinated by the end of March, but here at the end of January about 6% of the population has received at least their first dose.

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Co-worker who was in the office tested positive yesterday. One of my employees had extended contact with them and is heading home to quarantine. I didn’t have contact with them this week so I’m still in the office.

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A good friend of my Dad’s passed away from COVID complications last week. He was (IIRC) in his fifties.

I heard that my brother in law’s brother’s mother in law also has bad complications. (Don’t know more than that.)

A co-worker’s daughter and son-in-law both tested positive.

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My second test results came back yesterday — negative.

I took the test (another free-to-me saliva test received by mail) in my office on Monday and sent it UPS the same day. The results came back Tuesday evening.

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My first test results came back today — negative. I had ordered an at-home saliva test simply because I could. I plan to order and take a new one every week as long as I’m required to work in the office (and until a vaccine becomes widely available).

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My view “from the ground”:

  • Suddenly (within the last week) I am hearing of exposures from multiple people I know. Our neighbors are quarantining after a teacher at their son's daycare was exposed. Someone at work is quarantining after her boyfriend was exposed and he began showing symptoms.
  • It is now a lot easier to get tested than it was in the spring. In MN you can order an at-home saliva test that either insurance or the state will pay for.
  • Feels like our already-small world got a lot smaller since the weather got colder, the case numbers shot up again, and we increased our isolation from the few people with whom we’d been getting together.
  • With the vaccines in sight, we’re hopeful that we can get through this thing but it’s really going to suck for a while longer.
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Changes since August on a national scale:

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There have been a lot of changes in the past couple of months, but until recently my personal experience of the pandemic has not changed much: we continue to live the isolated in-limbo life.

My daughter, who is in first grade this year, is still doing distance learning as she was last spring. My son is in a private preschool, however.

Everyone at work has been “wearing masks” since the executive order in July. Not everyone is very good at it though; they're only required to do so when leaving their desks, lots of masks on chins etc.

We did have/attend a few outdoor gatherings over the summer. But now that it’s cold out again that’s not going to really happen much anymore. It’s widely understood that this virus spreads via aerosols and can linger in the air for hours, so unventilated spaces are a no-go for the prudent.

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I've been thinking about how narrow and limited my lived-experience view of “local pandemic life” is. I have so far been insulated from financial fallout, in fact we’re doing a bit better than normal thanks to reduced spending and the stimulus check. I rarely go out to buy anything anywhere other than the grocery store or the gas station, but those places appear as busy as they ever did, the main difference being that almost everyone has a mask on. It’s a huge contrast to the desolate abandoned Soviet-esque wasteland of mid-March.

And yet you know the unemployment numbers are still sky high, higher than they were at their worst in the last recession. Most of those people have had their income slashed by more than half with the expiration of the CARES act. Food shelf demand is extremely high. Mortgage delinquency has doubled. Federal eviction protections for many renters expired two days ago.

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Worth noting: I know of no one with whom I have a personal connection that has tested positive since April 30.

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The unemployment relief in the CARES act has expired. The House passed a second relief bill a month ago. The Senate waited until the beginning of August to start negotiations with the House, and now the Senate has adjourned until Labor Day without any agreement.

Trump has said he will extend an additional $300/week unemployment by executive orders, among other things. But it is widely understood among policymakers that this set of executive orders has many problems and that they will not have any meaningful effect.

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Ideological Split: There seems to be a trend in the reporting: there actually isn’t much of a partisan split in attitudes about the virus itself. One recent poll found support for mask mandates was at 72% overall. 86% of Democrats in the poll supported them, 58% of Republicans.

But anecdotally, the actual point of disagreement I see among Trump-aligned ideologues has changed. They no longer deny that the virus exists or that it can cause major health problems or that it has a high fatality rate compared to the flu. Most frequently the claim is that there is a simple cure to the virus but that doctors who know about it are being censored through some kind of conspiracy.

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Today Trump is saying that the election should be delayed until after the pandemic, which lines up with my expectations of March 19 above.

Whatever Trump says or whatever some states do, if the Electoral College doesn’t convene for whatever reason, the current House votes for President and the current Senate votes for VP. Added wrinkle: the vote in the House only is one vote per state, not per representative. There is no way that process goes smoothly or decisively.

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Booked an expensive dinner at a local restaurant rooftop for the first week of August. This will be my first time eating at a restaurant since February (my wife went to a patio with a friend in June). Hopefully the weather cooperates. We’re looking forward to pretending things are sort of normal for a couple of hours.

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Yesterday, a statewide mask mandate was announced for Minnesota. Governor Walz ended up doing it as a unilateral executive order.

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Last week, something of a minor turnaround on masks at work. Amid a larger morale/retention crisis, my IT co-worker and I began to raise the need for others to at least wear masks if we are in their workspace helping with a computer issue. Especially since there is almost no social distancing in the office. The CEO acquiesced to a review of the current COVID policies with a possibility of adding some (!) guidance on mask use.

This week, my co-worker and at least two others have worn masks in the office. One of those because her daughter was exposed to someone who had tested positive.

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We are having a birthday party for my daughter this weekend. Following the “Stay Safe MN” order means no more than 10 people if we have to have it inside, 25 if outdoors.

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June Prognostications

  • I went back and forth on this, but think Congress will pass some additional relief. GOP senators have already shown they have no real problem with big deficit spending to help out a republican president, and Democrats have shown that spiking the economy to spite Trump is not, thankfully, in their playbook.

  • However, the negotiations around the price tag will be different this time around. The relief will probably not be enough to mitigate most of the economic pain that is coming, and this pain will really be on the rise in the Aug–Sep time frame.

  • Since the pandemic is now the setting and not the story, it will not even be close to the largest factor on the public mood between now and November. Right now the BLM protests are big on everyone’s mind, against the backdrop of the pandemic and the economy.

  • I would guess that between now and November, in addition to these things we will see at least one more kind of crisis get added to the mix before the election itself expands into every last corner of our consciousness. If I were writing the show, I would think we were due for something in the nature of foreign policy.

  • I’m no longer predicting who will win the US presidential election. Polls look good for Biden, but he’s a very old idiot who can still land himself in a lot of trouble by saying stupid things. He could perform very poorly in debates. He might also die.

  • I do predict a slow setting-in of big economic pain in the months leading up to the election.

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Prognostication Recap

From my March 17 guesses:

  • “The crisis will increase in severity through at least July, driven by severe healthcare shortages” — I think I missed this one. I also did not account for the locality of outbreaks; I was at that point still thinking of the US as a whole. So the reality was more mixed. Capacity-driven crises did hit in some places (New York) but were avoided in others. Both here in Minnesota and as a whole, the US has seen its case load level off and decline, but it remains much, much worse than the EU, which peaked at the same time and same level as we did in April.
  • “No measure big enough to offset major economic downturn will be able to pass in Congress…lots of unemployment and no relief” — In fact some sizeable relief did pass that may have so far spared us the worst of the pain. But since the unemployment supports are set to expire at the end of next month, (and it seems very doutbful that there will exist the political will to extend them), we might have just pushed the worst pain out to Aug–Sep. Unemployment claims are declining but still extremely hugely high. So I think this may yet prove true.
  • “If we get the disease, and the public mood, under control before June, Trump is reelected in November…If we get there between June and September, Trump loses in November” — Obviously the election hasn't happened yet. But I think these predictions were framed around some incorrect assumptions: 1) that public mood would improve in concert with our actual control of the disease spread; 2) a strictly linear picture of improvement, and 3) no other factors (civil rights protests, anyone?). What actually happened was that the atmosphere of fear and dread evaporated, but there was actually no change in our actual control over it. The two are not in any way linked.
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We’re through another month.

Masks: I am again, lately, the only person at work who wears a mask. Mask wearing at stores has become common, even though not everywhere required.

The Mode: In a hundred little ways, our mode or approach to pandemic reality has morphed into: do whatever, maybe wear a mask. People have given up on quarantine and even social distancing except in locations where rules are posted and enforced.

Partisan divide: With the death of George Floyd here in Minneapolis two weeks ago, and the subsequent protests all over the world, the most intense partisan fault lines are totally realigned now now around police brutality and systemic racism issues.

We’ve now seen that no one is procedurally against mass protests in the midst of a pandemic. Language like “sacrificing the elderly” aimed at those who want to reopen the economy ASAP is now conspicuously absent from any discourse about large gatherings.

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My employer is reversing the 20% pay cut they announced at the beginning of April (noted above). It is due to the terms of the PPP loan they received at the beginning of the month (also noted above).

Apparently the forgivable portion of that loan is reduced by the amount of any payroll reductions made due to COVID-19. So they either pay the amount to employees or they repay it back to the government.

In this case at least, the “Payroll Protection” part of “PPP” seems to be working as designed.

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Saw first news today of a more contagious strain of the virus.

Edit: A rebuttal

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Last week during days when I’ve had to drive to the office, I counted three people besides myself who wore masks. This is at a location that on a pre-COVID normal day would have had around 30 people.

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Last week, after reading a recent piece in the NYT a few of us in my family have ordered or borrowed pulse oximeters (including my brother above, who has since tested positive). It appears that when COVID-19 complications occur, blood oxygen levels often drop to dangerous levels days in advance of any breathing difficulty, and this $50 device can provide you an early warning sign:

There is a way we could identify more patients who have Covid pneumonia sooner and treat them more effectively — and it would not require waiting for a coronavirus test at a hospital or doctor’s office. It requires detecting silent hypoxia early through a common medical device that can be purchased without a prescription at most pharmacies: a pulse oximeter.

Pulse oximeters helped save the lives of two emergency physicians I know, alerting them early on to the need for treatment. When they noticed their oxygen levels declining, both went to the hospital and recovered (though one waited longer and required more treatment). Detection of hypoxia, early treatment and close monitoring apparently also worked for Boris Johnson, the British prime minister.

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My brother (lives in the same state) has been sick for a week; now that Minnesota’s testing ramp is underway, he was able to get tested for COVID-19, and his results came back positive today.

He has been working from home for more than a month. We suppose he caught it from his wife who is an essential worker dealing with hundreds of people in public every day, though she has no symptoms so far.

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I’ve looked at the details of Apple and Google’s joint contact-tracing effort and I have to say, I think it is going to fail to make much, if any, difference.

They are going to absolutely nail the fundamentals, except for the part about actually verifying when someone has tested positive. There is going to be no standard for that.

In fact any piece that relies on the private health system make correct design choices and provide clear data and standards will fall flat on its face. People will spuriously self-report as positive, whether by accident or through idle malice.

The system will end up being useless.

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Have I had it already? The question lots of people are asking themselves, especially after recent autopsies and other work point to several weeks of previously undetected cryptic transmission in US cities.

Seems to bear out this tweet from two months ago (Feb 29):

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The big impact everyone is discussing today is that oil futures contracts for May 2020 (and only May) are below $1/barrel or even negative. This apparently has to do with today being some kind of due date; if you hold the contract beyond today you’ll be required to take physical delivery of the oil, and (for now) no one wants it.

However, this is not much of a felt impact for me and a lot of people, for the same reason that is causing the plummeting oil prices: we don’t drive much anymore. Also, neither I nor anyone I know works in the oil industry.

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I found out last week that my employer did manage to secure a (presumably) forgiveable loan/advance under the Payroll Protection Program.

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IRS stimulus check deposited to my checking account today, 17 days after passage of the CARES act. The amount correctly reflected our income, marriage status and the fact that we have two dependent children. Our immediate needs are already taken care of for now, so our plan for this money is to stick it in our emergency fund and re-evaluate at the end of the year.

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This will be the first full week I’ve worked from home.

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I started wearing a mask to work today, the first in my company to do so. This may be in part because I have some decent masks leftover from a trip, and they are quite hard to buy at the moment. But it also definitely feels like I am swimming against the social current here, and I am getting a lot of looks.

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My employer announced that amid a falloff in sales they are cutting most employees’ pay by 20% and converting some salaried/exempt employees’ status to hourly/non-exempt. The stated goal is to keep everyone employed amid uncertainty as to how long the downturn will last.

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Today a co-worker tested positive and was hospitalized, the first one in our company and the first such person personally known to me. This person has worked remotely for a long time, so there is no reason to think they carried it to others here in the office.

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It’s been a couple of weeks now since the John Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard was at all useful in the US. It was handy for tracking the global spread during the early stages, but at this point we all know cases are everywhere and skyrocketing. The useful dashboards and tracking sites are those that operate on a more local level.

It will probably become interesting to look at again in a couple of months, when we might start to see a plateau or decline in the global number of cases.

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Felt impacts in Minneapolis so far:

  • No rush hour traffic whatsoever for the last couple of weeks.
  • Jess (spouse) has been home with the kids and the loss of any outside activity (gym, social gatherings with other adults, playground visits) combined with so much time with the kids who also have no other outlets, combined with the larger uncertainty about Everything, is taking a mental toll on her, as it would be on me if I were home alone with the kids.
  • This has exacerbated the already suboptimal divide between our two lives, hers centered at home and mine at work. Ideally we would both be home at this time. I’m upset with my employer for taking the stance that all of this represents some kind of business/profit opportunity rather than doing its part to limit the spread as much as possible.
  • My 4-year old has regressed in independence somewhat; he has no time with his preschool teachers and peers, and the more he is stuck at home the more constantly he demands our attention to keep himself from being bored. This is not unusual considering his age. He’ll obviously grow past this, but it’s affecting us now.
  • Jess went for groceries yesterday morning and the place was pretty empty for a Saturday morning. Lots of reminders to keep six feet apart. No one was using the self-checkout.
  • Various people at work who have the option (i.e., their work can be done remotely) have been working remotely.
  • Political chatter in the hallways and around offices has ticked up very noticeably. The vast majority of it is pro-Trump, which makes sense because most of my co-workers are right-wing.
  • A couple of my siblings are filing for unemployment benefits due to reduced or no pay from their jobs.
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On another note: a lot of celebrities seem to believe they can help us during these trying times by …being famous online from home. It’s getting old.

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Yesterday the Governor announced a “stay at home” order will be in place in Minnesota for 2 weeks starting Friday at midnight.

Many people are confusing this with a “shelter in place” order, which would be much more stringent. The stay-at-home order allows us to leave home for a number of reasons, such as to get groceries, exercise outside, work jobs in exempted/critical sectors, etc.

The last one is interesting. The guidance on exempt industries is very broad. According to MN’s Dept of Employment commissioner:

About 78 percent of the jobs in Minnesota are in critical industries as defined by the executive order, so it's just 22 percent that are not. (source)

There is also no enforcement, so companies can declare themselves exempt and require their workers to come in as usual. My own employer has taken this route. We sell desks and monitor walls, but since some of our customers are in exempt agencies they have decided we are exempt as well.

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Gov. Walz dithers about a statewide shelter-in-place order

Gov. Walz is, I think, two steps behind the curve of what we actually need to happen right now. By his own account to WCCO this morning: A) today's numbers are going to jump way up, and B) the rate of growth is going to accelerate! Besides this, he knows that the ratio of tested cases to the actual number out there is abysmal. And yet: a shelter in place order is “not the situation we believe we're at.”

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Developments today:

  • Grocery store workers included in definition of “emergency workers” in MN, qualifying them for free healthcare.

  • Some more malls closing, following MoA’s closure yesterday.

  • Trump has invoked an act that gives him the authority to direct private production in times of war (ventilators? testing?) but is dithering about whether he will use it.

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Seems apparent that the lack of testing capacity is going to require blunt, blind quarantining measures, which have a heavy heavy economic toll, rather than targeted quarantining measures which would have a lighter economic touch.

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Today I found out that a co-worker's son wired a house for someone who has now tested positive for COVID-19, and subsequently fell sick, missing a week of work. My co-worker, who is now working remotely, spent time at his son’s house while he was sick.

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You can see I’m on the side of the fork that says that the virus is real and serious, meaning there will be many thousands of deaths due to an overwhelmed healthcare system, and many thousands with permanent lung damage. I expect that my wife and I will get the virus, and am cautiously optimistic that we will not require medical attention to live through it.

The outcome that would pose an something of an ideological smack-up for me would be if less than 50 thousand people die from COVID-19 (i.e. fewer people than do from influenza in a typical flu season) or have permanent lung damage (and assuming SARS-CoV-2 spread doesn’t become a new seasonal event like H1N1). As dumb as it would make me feel, this would be my preferred outcome.

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Personal Prognostication Snapshot:

  • The crisis will increase in severity through at least July, driven by severe healthcare shortages and consequent too-late severe quarantine measures further braking the economy, as we have seen in Italy.
  • No measure big enough to offset major economic downturn will be able to pass in Congress.
  • So, lots of unemployment and almost no relief.
  • If we get the disease, and the public mood, under control before June, Trump is reelected in November. This is soon enough to avoid the worst economic pain, so that we all recalibrate our narratives and return to our baseline levels of (dis)satisfaction. Biden will be an ineffective nominee and, perhaps narrowly, end up as John Kerry 2.0.
  • If we get there between June and September, Trump loses in November, since by then it’s too late to prevent the massive economic pain’s effect on his already-bad approval numbers.
  • If the crisis drags on much of the way through September, the Trump admin attempts to use emergency powers big pressure in Congress from WH and some states to postpone an imminently disastrous election. Honestly not sure if SCOTUS upholds against the inevitable legal challenge. [edit 3/19/20: apparently the prevailing legal theory is that only Congress can change the date of the election. How exactly that plays out in a pandemic, I’m not sure. But even so, I think election-postponing is for sure going to be on the discourse table.]
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As with so many aspects of society, the US public’s model has done a “hard fork.”

It seems to me that one xor the other is going to run smack up against the painful difference between its model and reality. Maybe such a disillusioning event would be a silver lining for our society.

I'm not so sure about the exclusive-or though. Might we emerge from this with each side of the fork just as or more convinced than they were before? Or might both experience a smack-up? Maybe the forks themselves will fork?

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The USA’s neatly fractured view of the pandemic (along political lines) is something to behold, and will be fascinating to watch as the year progresses.

  • “Recall how, in the run-up to the Iraq war, the White House signaled preferred policy outcome so heavily that it skewed the analysis and advice it received. Can see similar alignment b/w preferences Trump and his team were signaling, and strategic posture of his crisis managers.” —Jeremy Konyndyk

Second one above seems to have played out among the public at large, not just among administration team members and support staff.

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My (at the time) half-serious Twitter thread started Jan 23. I felt comfortable tweeting about it because we weren’t yet inundated with the subject.

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I bookmarked the John Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard on January 25 2020, when there were 2k cases in China. I should have started a thoughtstream at that time as well, but I have been out of the habit.

Here I’m trying to capture the kinds of things that can get hard to recall after the fact: impressions of the present, and evolving guesses about the future impact of this virus on any area of life.